|Sean shielded his eyes from the rising sun and scanned the river. A
year ago he would have crossed over the waterway without fear, but
continual rumour from up river of military activity on the southern
bank made the community patrols wary of the southern bush and
watches were confined to the north bank.
From his cover inside the treeline he stood up. In the undergrowth
his companion sounded a caution as Sean squatted quickly. In the
rising light, a large black bird with a yellow-rimmed all-seeing eye
swooped from the forest on the far bank and glided out along the
river, crowing flatly. The river was sluggish and stirred up, good
for the large fat cod which rose early to feed on the insects playing
along the shallows.
The boys would regret their carelessness; they had been seen.
Unaware, Sean made his way into the open and down the muddy
bank to the water’s edge. His mate followed. Everything looked
peaceful. Peering along the opposite bank, they decided it was safe
and, like nervous deer, they went down on all fours to drink deeply.
As his mate drank, Sean sat up and looked across the waterway. He
was moved by the beauty of dawn over the water. This was the best
part of the day, there were no chores or duties; today was a good
But they’d been seen.
Thirty metres across the river under cover of the silent forest a rifle
lifted, its telescopic sight settling on the forehead of the drinking
boy, while a second rifle found Sean’s temple as he cupped his hands
in the water. Squeezing slowly, the sniper grimaced and loosed off a
single shot. As Sean stooped, the projectile struck his head, ripping
across his skull and throwing him backwards to shudder feebly in
the shallow water. His mate sprung from the water too late, a second
shot struck him square in the face, killing him.
Across the river two Vitros dragged a small canoe from the
trees, entered the water and swiftly crossed the waterway. When
they reached the bank where the boys lay, one covered the other as
they checked the bodies. ‘This one’s still alive,’ said one. ‘A good
specimen. He’ll bring a high price.’
‘And the other?’
‘One less to worry about,’ said the woman, ‘Pity we couldn’t get
The boy’s village lay in a fertile region of lush country where the
soil was deep and enriched by the waters of the river. The seasons
came and went with gentle change, weather was mild in winter
and the meadows around the village were protected from the wind
by dense stands of tall trees. Small creeks watered the fields, food
production was easy and drought and violent storms were unknown.
Untroubled by pests, the people of the river community tilled the
earth, raised crops and were blessed with success year after year.
They set the seasons by the moon, while their days were governed
by the rising of the sun. Time passed without notice; clocks were
contraptions from the unknown past and the people were content.
Yet when Sean talked to his friend Bindy about the mysteries of the
outside world, she said that time was once important. Her father told
her there was an ancient wristwatch in the village store and he said
it kept perfect time.
‘What does that mean?’ said Sean.
‘My Da said that in the olden days when the village was established,
our river was the dividing line between two separate states. The
bush was alive with people, he said, and there were villages and
hamlets and even towns all through the bush and the community
kept trade with them all.’
Sean believed everything Bindy said, but he was not sure about
her father. Bindy was certain of her facts and she was a curious,
passionate girl, intrigued by the idea of lots of people living nearby.
She would have loved to have lived in those times, to know more
people and to find things in the outside world, but that was a long
time ago and the countryside was empty now. The bush was quiet,
the towns had vanished and people who had lived around and about
were long gone. Excitement in the village was hard to find and girls
like Bindy were encouraged to be content, attend church, grow
and harvest food and be good upright young women; be Christian
brides to keep the peace and have lots of babies. But the business of
babies was complicated because apart from the general boredom of
the girls there was a shortage of suitable boys for marriage. And to
complicate matters further, the biggest concern was that the fertility
of men vanished at thirty.
The families with girls who wanted their line to continue moved
fast; they had to. Bindy’s father had watched the families carefully,
and just after Bindy’s sixth birthday he negotiated for Sean to become
Bindy’s husband. It was an early move even for the villagers, but
people acknowledged the wisdom and Bindy was quite pleased.
At the formalising of the vows, the church was full and the service
finished with Bindy, her mother and father, Sean and Kate, Sean’s
mother, signing the agreement. Sean’s father, The Dean, who was
the power and the authority of the village, stood looking solemn,
‘Da?’ said Bindy to her father.
‘Yes my dear?’
‘Now that Sean and I are going to be married, does that mean I’ll
get my own room in my own house?’
Her father nodded and smiled and The Dean spoke. ‘You’re one of
the lucky ones my girl,’ he said, pinching Bindy’s cheek.
‘So is Sean my brother now?’
‘That’s a good way of looking at it,’ said The Dean. ‘There’s plenty
of time to get to know one another.’ He smiled at the family around
the font; this was sensible, uncomplicated and easily explained and
so began the long friendship of Sean and Bindy. When their parents
were cross, Sean and Bindy ran to each other with their hurts; when
Sean’s grandmother became desperately sick, The Dean sent him to
live with Bindy’s family for a month. When Bindy’s mother almost
died, it was Sean’s warm companionship that helped her through
the bleak exhausting days and weeks that followed. Her mother
recovered fully, but was completely changed. Her sunny placid
ways were gone and the escape from Yellow Jack left her insecure
and fearful. She discovered a fear of death and became obsessed
with religion; her soul and those of her children became paramount
and she forced her family into church every day.
While the family changed, Bindy’s father took things gently as
was his way with most things. His calmness was a quality admired
by all who knew him, but Bindy stayed away from home as much
as she could. The little school with its limited book supplies was
her lifeline and it was in the dark wood-panelled book room with its
smells of chalk and absence of villagers where her curiosity about
the world outside the village was kindled.
Squeezed between the village plant registers, the slates, the precious
paper store and the stuffed animal exhibits, she snooped through the
tiny collection of novels written long ago. She encouraged Sean
to do the same. ‘You have to read more books. They’re full of the
things that were in the outside world.’
‘My dad doesn’t like me reading those books. He says they’re full of evil.’
‘Pooh. What about the Bible? That’s evil enough.’
‘He says it’s different.’
‘Poor Sean, having The Dean for a father. He hates the past, except
when it supports Christians.’
Sean handled Bindy’s rebellion with good grace and kept it from
his father, but she was right, The Dean wanted the lives of his
villagers to be happy and untroubled by any outside knowledge.
Then Bindy came to the blood and while she was expecting it,
the change overwhelmed all her friendships. She saw Sean through
a new lens. The boy she had spent her girlhood with, the boy who
had built bush huts and bowers and taught her to fish and trap,
looked different. She realised fully what was expected and she
was repelled. She couldn’t think of Sean as anything but a friend and sex
with him was unthinkable. He was equally appalled and while they
maintained their friendship, their closeness faded and they saw little
of each other, coming together infrequently for church functions
and military training.
Bindy’s father worried about the arrangement and their awkward
behaviour. Everything had gone so smoothly for years and he had to
get them together, so he spoke about their responsibilities. ‘We have
agreed Bindy,’ he said gently, ‘it’s our way, this is how we keep our
village together, how our people flourish and grow.’
Bindy was not feeling gentle, ‘He’s weedy.’
‘Promises are made to be kept,’ said her father quietly. ‘We’ve
signed the paper, you’re a Goodbride and you must marry Sean and
have his babies. Besides, where would you find another boy as good
Five years passed and Sean and Bindy kept their distance, hoping
something would create the spark to get things started. It didn’t, but
their childhood warmth came back and they were more like brother
and sister than ever, once again keeping their secrets away from their
families. But this time the secrets were about sex. However, their
agreement remained in place, their marriage loomed and they hoped
that something would happen to break the contract, but what?
Bindy had one secret she kept to herself, a secret no one, not
friends, not her Da, not even Sean, knew about. A boy called
Matthew from the other side of the village had been meeting her
in the bush every few days for months; she loved him and he loved
her, madly, deliriously, without fear. If Bindy had to describe how
she loved Matthew she would say it was not like Sean at all, she
would say that Matthew made her shiver, that he was beautiful and
sleek and moved like an animal, strong and fast. She would say that
he was an expert bushman, excellent with a bow and he had a curl
of hair behind his ear that made her moist just thinking about him.
She was that far gone. But her marriage to Sean was coming and to
make things even more complicated, Matthew was also betrothed
- to Alexandra.
One evening Bindy sat behind Matthew’s family at church, with
her was Da and Mother either side and it took all her powers of
self-control not to lean forward and kiss his neck just below that
curl of hair. She wanted him to turn around so she could see into his
lustrous eyes again.
It was at the end of the harvest service and the Goodbrides were
sent to the front of the church to sing a special hymn. Alexandra got
up and looped her arm through Bindy’s and they walked up the aisle
of the church past the unmarried girls who sat with their parents.
They were trying to look as fetching as possible and Alexandra
was smug about her status and lorded it over the spinster-girls. But
Bindy was more sympathetic. Her father scoffed: ‘very unhappy
girls,’ he said, ‘all ready, but no beddy.’
All the important families were in church. There was the
Venns with the half-wit son nobody talked about, the Nashs and
the Macdonalds who managed to betroth their four children to
each other, the Littlewoods who were young and after five years
of wedded unhappiness were still not producing children - it was
rumoured their marriage would be annulled soon and that’s why
the unmarrieds looked so fetching. There were the VanVeens, from
Triumph originally, and their grandfather William who told horrific
stories of big city bureaucrats selling spare girls into prostitution
and Mr and Mrs Jordan whose children had grown up and moved
down river to another community, it was said they ran a foul of The
Dean’s wife and were forced out. For a village so concerned with
adultery and bloodlines, there was no shortage of contradictions
and no one mentioned the half-wit Venn boy. If he had been a girl,
things would have been different. They’d have called him a clone
and gotten rid of him.
Yet The Dean kept his ‘moral register’ on the periods of the girls
and whether Goodbrides or spinster girls, the personal information
on their cycles was meekly supplied by their dutiful mothers.
As Bindy left the church The Dean was standing by the door.
‘We’re posting the banns next week, Bindy,’ he said proudly. ‘Are
you ready?’ She nodded meekly; she was not. Catching sight of
Matthew in the yard her heart sank, and she looked at her feet.
The Dean knew the marriage was difficult, but he had seen these
situations before, they always worked out, a promise was a promise.
‘Sean will be back tomorrow, why don’t you both come for tea? We
can talk things over.’
She shuffled past, head down and child-like mixing with the other
families in the dark, she heard Da say that ‘she was a little bit out of
sorts’. Wrong. She was very much ‘in sorts’. She’d been coupling all
night with Matthew in the bush (Matthew called it tredding) and it
was getting harder to keep up the pretence. What a word, ‘betrothed’:
empty, cold, devoid of anything like enjoyment, no laughing, no
playing and no sex, definitely no sex, just responsibility and keeping
promises, just betrothed, like loathed. If word got around about her
Matthew, Sean would be humiliated and she couldn’t stand that.
Matthew would be shunned until they settled with his family and
she would be banished, so their secret was kept for now.
From church to agriculture and babies her unchanging life left
her longing for more, for excitement and real work, like crossing
the river and meeting the enemy. But the men and women of the
village never crossed the river unless they had to, they were quite
happy to be separate, away from the outside world. It made them
secure and kept the outside world well away, except when the Vitro
coming up from the south invaded the district. That was when
Bindy’s excitement could not be contained. The families, hating
the intrusion and fearful for their sons, rose in anger and alarm:
orders were issued, weapons were shouldered and patrols sent into
the bush and The Dean and his people briefly became fierce. But
when the raids were put down, everybody returned to their thatched
houses with their smoky fireplaces to pray for absolution. Life
returned to normal, the villagers went back to tending the fields
and making food, there was no talk of the world in the south and
why the Vitro were there, no curiosity about the need for vigilance.
It was necessary, that was all. The more Bindy questioned things
the more blunt the replies and the more isolated she felt and the
more she turned to Matthew for relief. But a reckoning was coming.
Marriage loomed, Sean could not be compromised any longer and it
was up to her to tell him.
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